Going the distance with cellist Colin Carr

By Elizabeth Kerr In Classical

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Colin Carr/ Photo Jo Schofield

A lone musician carrying a cello walked quietly on to a Wellington stage, sat down and entranced his audience with some of the most wonderful music ever written. It was 1985, the 300th anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach, and Dutch Baroque cellist Anner Bylsma performed the complete unaccompanied Bach Cello Suites in New Zealand to mark the occasion. It rates highly as one of my most memorable musical experiences ever.

Now I’m anticipating that thrill again. English cellist Colin Carr will play the six suites in a single afternoon at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson next month. Top local cellists are also excited about Carr’s visit. “Of the very many recordings of the Cello Suites I possess, his is among the very best and one of my favourites,” says Andrew Joyce, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s principal cellist. “Astonishingly, his recording is live; there are apparently only two or three edits on this CD and the playing is simply immaculate.” Rolf Gjelsten, cellist with the New Zealand String Quartet, describes Carr as “one of the most thoughtful and sensitive musicians on the stage today” and also expects the Nelson concert to be “unforgettable”.

When I talk to Carr about his upcoming New Zealand gig, he’s under his thatched roof in a village near Oxford, by a roaring fire with a frosty English winter outside. It’s a world away from the sunny beaches and al fresco winery lunches that go with the biennial Adam Festival. Discussing his approach to Bach’s music, he’s quick to acknowledge the influence of Bylsma, whom he describes as “a spontaneous being, a live spirit – he goes to enormous lengths never to play the same way twice”.

Carr’s 300-year-old Gofriller cello, unlike that of the Dutchman, has a modern set-up, but “it sounds like a Baroque cello”, he says. “It’s quite a dark sounding instrument and it has that richness and warmth.” Many revere Bach for his use of the simplest of means in the suites to express profound ideas through brilliantly implied harmonies and breathtaking counterpoint. “What never ceases to amaze me,” says Carr, “is Bach’s ability to achieve all this with a single instrument. And what I also love about this music is the juxtapositions and paradoxes, light and dark, joy and sorrow. These are often what makes great art great.”

The story of the discovery of this mesmerising music in 1890 by a 19-year-old Pablo Casals is so intriguing that music journalist and sleuth Eric Siblin has written a gripping book about it, The Cello Suites. It explores the background to the composition of the suites, their renaissance after being unearthed 140 years after Bach’s death in a back-street Barcelona second-hand shop by Casals and Siblin’s own hunt for the original manuscript.

Carr is adamant there’s another protagonist in the suites mystery, one he calls “wonder woman”, the composer’s second wife and faithful music copyist, Anna Magdalena Bach. It’s her manuscript of the suites that has survived (Bach’s original version has never surfaced) and Carr tells his students to throw away other editions and go with the spirit of spontaneity she embodies.

“Her slurs and articulation are unpredictable and it’s very empowering; you can make it up as you go along. Anna Magdalena is responsible for this improvisatory approach and it’s the way I enjoy playing the suites. You have to be both very organised and very free – you have to know and understand every harmony but at the same time you have to surprise yourself, play as if for the first time, as if it’s new and wonderful.”

As a young prodigy, Carr entered the renowned Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey when he was eight and studied there for eight years. Now in his mid-fifties, he describes his childhood self as “an irritating know-it-all little boy” who was nonetheless enormously influenced by the musicians there, including Menuhin himself, Rudolph Serkin, French composer Nadia Boulanger and cello teachers Maurice Gendron and William Pleeth. He gained “a sense of how important music was – there was nothing else for me. I was incredibly intense. Later, I had to eliminate some of this intensity – you can grab people by the throat but sometimes you have to let them go, make them comfortable.”

As well as his solo Bach performance in Nelson, Carr will play chamber works with the New Zealand String Quartet, pianist Diedre Irons and others. “The strength of festivals,” he says “is they throw musicians together and result sometimes in truly memorable performances. As a young musician, I wasn’t very good at this. I arrived knowing how I wanted to play, I wasn’t flexible, I couldn’t get into someone else’s flow. With experience, I can do that now.”

Carr has another passion in his life. “Running [he manages 10km most days] is as important to me as playing the cello. It’s a physical need just like eating and sleeping. There’s some sort of parallel with training to play the Bach Suites in a single concert, building stamina so I can do it with ease, without huffing and puffing. Whatever running does chemically, those endorphins, makes me free; I feel more goodwill as a person and it comes out in my playing, in confidence and freedom.”

COLIN CARR, Bach Suites, February 3; Masterclass, February 5; Rhapsody, with Douglas Beilman (violin), Péter Nagy (piano), Diedre Irons (piano), New Zealand String Quartet, February 7. All as part of the Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson, February 1-9.

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